DCHS senior spends six weeks in Finland through YFU ambassador exchange
By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, COKATO, MN Dassel-Cokato High School senior Alyssa Torola spent six weeks in Finland this past summer on a Youth For Understanding (YFU) scholarship, and recommends other students explore the opportunity for themselves.
She first heard of the cultural immersion program last year when a representative from YFU spoke to her Spanish class.
After doing some research online about the organization, Torola decided to apply.
YFU USA works with international partners in more than 60 countries in an effort to build bridges between nations and provide cultural experiences for young people.
Torola wrote several essays and entered them to win a scholarship to go to Finland. She chose Finland because both of her parents are Finnish, and she had been to Finland four years ago with her grandparents and really enjoyed the trip.
Her trip began June 27, when she and 11 other students who won the Finnish scholarship, spent half the week in YFU workshops in Washington, DC.
“It was really cool how we could make friendships with each other so quickly,” Torola said of her fellow exchange students.
The workshops helped them prepare for the Finnish culture they would soon be immersed in, including an introduction to the language.
Once in Finland, Torola stayed with a host family in Siilinjärvi, in the mid-eastern region of Finland. Torola was excited because the town was about five times the size of Cokato.
“I was really happy because it was a big town for me,” she commented. Siilinjärvi has a population around 21,000 people.
During her time in Finland, Torola was able to try a lot of the Finnish foods and even learned how to make a few of the recipes, including pasties and wild rice soup. She was introduced to fish and meat pies, which she said are more like pizza than pies.
She also spent a lot of time with her host family and went hiking and shopping with friends.
Torola was able to explore a castle in Turku with her other Finnish exchange students, and also took a trip to Astonia, a small country south of Finland.
“I loved the castle,” she said, explaining that it was very old and was built in stages.
She also spent time in Old Town Tallin, which is the capital of Astoria. Torola explained there is a section of town that is very well-preserved and medieval.
The most rewarding part of the trip wasn’t necessarily what she did, but what she took from it.
“I have a lot more pride in my heritage,” she said. Before this trip, she hadn’t looked much farther past the Finnish culture that she grew up with in Cokato.
Now she sees a much bigger picture. “As much of the whole picture as I could in six weeks,” she said.
She understands herself better as well, explaining just how much one’s heritage affects who you are.
One thing she learned about the Finnish is that it’s a quiet culture, and they say what they mean and don’t use a lot of sarcasm, like she finds here.
Torola also noted how she has learned to become more independent. Being in a foreign country, where the people don’t speak the same language as you, will do that, she commented. An experience like this is something she finds will be beneficial to any teenager before heading off to college.
It was also very much an adventure which enabled Torola to be able to see and experience things she wouldn’t here in America.
“I would just really recommend it to anyone here,” she said. She also encourages everyone to explore their roots.
“You can’t study it and learn the same thing,” she said, adding that one has to experience it for themselves.